Last week on The PediaBlog, we looked at a small study that used MRI scans to reveal anatomic brain changes in children who experienced prenatal and postnatal exposure to air pollution, specifically polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) — the byproducts of burning fossil fuels. In that case, researchers saw a diminution of white matter, along with its clinical effects:

We detected a dose-response relationship between increased prenatal PAH exposure (measured in the third trimester but thought to index exposure for all of gestation) and reductions of the white matter surface in later childhood that were confined almost exclusively to the left hemisphere of the brain and that involved almost its entire surface. Reduced left hemisphere white matter was associated with slower information processing speed during intelligence testing and with more severe externalizing behavioral problems, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms and conduct disorder problems.


Researchers from the University of Vermont College of Medicine recently demonstrated that playing a musical instrument promotes brain growth and maturation (cortical thickening) during childhood. Using MRI scans, IQ tests, and music training data (including the number of years instruments were played), the researchers were able to see anatomic changes in the areas of the cerebral cortex which mediate attention, emotions, and mood. UVM calls the study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “the largest investigation of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development”:

The authors found evidence they expected—that music playing altered the motor areas of the brain, because the activity requires control and coordination of movement. Even more important to Hudziak were changes in the behavior-regulating areas of the brain. For example, music practice influenced thickness in the part of the cortex that relates to “executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future,” the authors write.

The findings bolster Hudziak’s hypothesis that a violin might help a child battle psychological disorders better than a bottle of pills. And it’s in tune with The Vermont Family Based Approach, a model Hudziak created to establish that the entirety of a young person’s environment—parents, teachers, friends, pets, extracurricular activities—contributes to his or her psychological health. “Music is a critical component in my model,” says Hudziak, who at age fifty-six recently took up the viola.


Rock on!

More PediaBlog on music and health here.